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TV advert 'driving viewers mad' set for re-run
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Those who were "driven mad" by a simple but long TV ad during the Spring Festival had better turn off their televisions during the Lantern Festival Thursday, as the ad is set for a festive return.

The one-minute TV advertisement by the Shanghai-based Hengyuanxiang Group Co., Ltd, China's leading textile enterprise and an official Olympics sponsor, stunned audiences with a still picture of the Beijing Olympics logo, red characters "Hengyuanxiang" and black smaller ones saying "Beijing 2008 Olympics Sponsor" on a white background. This childishly simple ad then had 12 animals appear, from the Chinese animal zodiac, which jumped out as children intoned the animals' Chinese names.

The ad was televised during the Spring Festival golden week from Feb. 6 to Feb. 12 on six domestic channels, including the influential Shanghai-based East TV and entertainment-oriented Hunan Television.

The ad drew wide criticism.

"At first I thought to myself, has my television been infected with a virus?" said a netizen nicknamed Cinderella.

"Facing a white screen with 12 little animals hopping at me, I really wanted to knock my head against the wall...was it a nightmare?" said another netizen.

But officials with the world's largest woolen yarn producer had their own interpretation.

"Our intention is to send New Year greetings to all the Chinese people, who were born in the year of the 12 animals, and to make people laugh," said Ding Xiuwei, media consultant with the company.

Hengyuanxiang used a similar ad in 1991. In the 15-second ad made by the company's CEO Liu Ruiqi himself, the name of the company was repeated three times, each followed by a cute child's voice intoning "sheep, sheep, sheep", which implied Hengyuanxiang's major products were made of wool.

"It was the ad that inscribed the brand on Chinese people's minds, thus saving the old brand," recalled Bai Hai, manager with a multinational company in Beijing, whose name he declined to reveal.

Later Hengyuanxiang tried other ads, but the change didn't seem successful. "Even I couldn't remember those ads. Do you think they have a big influence?" said Li Wei, controller of the company's brand center.

Hengyuanxiang developed the original ad in 2005, when it became a Beijing Olympics sponsor. A "Hengyuanxiang, cow, cow, cow" ad was televised by China Central Television (CCTV) for eight days. Cow, or Niu, means excellent in Chinese.

The short-lasting ad did not incur much criticism, but was not popular either.

Another reason why Hengyuanxiang made such an ad this Spring Festival was financial.

"The company paid off all its debts by the end of 2005. This time we sponsored the Olympics, it was like buying the company again," said Chen Zhongwei, Vice General Manager with the Hengyuanxiang group.

"Each cent should be spent well," he said, "our aim is to have the brand remembered. Condemned is better than forgotten."

Privatized in 2001, Hengyuanxiang saw its sales totalling four billion yuan (about 563 million U.S. dollars) in 2005 and 4.5 billion (about 634 million U.S. dollars) in 2006.

Officials with the company didn't disclose the cost of the ad, but according to an estimate by Yuan Fang, associate professor with the Advertising School of the China Communication University, it might be between 10 million and 20 million yuan.

"The ad immediately pushed the company to the center of people's attention and into the media spotlight. Seen from this aspect, it is successful," he said.

Liu Zhengju, production manager with CCTV's economic channel was tolerant. "Among the 144 enterprises who had sponsored the Olympic Games through its history, only one-third could be remembered by people," he said, adding his hope that Chinese people would support an old domestic brand, help it develop and go abroad.

"Liked or not, the ad is lawful," said Lu Zhian, associate professor with the School of Laws of the Shanghai-based Fudan University, "it is understandable for enterprises to promote themselves with the Olympics."

The ad, lashed as the "most stupid in history", was not the only one of its kind -- an ad for a washing-up liquid, called Fuyanjie, drew heavy criticism and an advert for a medicine called Naobaijin, literally Brain White Gold, has also driven people so mad that they have complained vociferously on Internet messageboards. However, the products sold well.

Fuyanjie soon became a famous brand, and Brain White Gold whose ad featured two dolls as an old couple singing and dancing in an amusing manner, has led in domestic personal healthcare market for years. Its sales topped 1.5 billion yuan in 2006.

"They could sell well, but not for long," said Li Guangdong, an expert in brand strategy, "famous companies rely on their brand, not the product. Such poorly designed ads would ultimately taint the brand."

His view was shared by Yu Hai, sociologist with the Fudan University. "Unlike Fuyanjie and Brain White Gold, Hengyuanxiang is an International brand and should always protect its image," he said.

"Most of the Chinese advertisements lack creativity. I have travelled abroad, and I found some ads in foreign countries quite impressive. It is suicidal to push a brand into the world arena with such ads," he said.

The long ad is to appear again from 7 a.m. Thursday to 1 a.m. Friday on East TV 41 times.

"After that the first round of shows is over," said Li Wei from Hengyuanxiang smilingly, refusing to disclose when the second round would take place.

(Xinhua News Agency February 21, 2008)

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